05 Tchaikovsky LeshnoffTchaikovsky – Symphony No.4; Leshnoff – Double Concerto Clarinet & Bassoon
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Mannfred Honeck
Reference Recordings (pittsburghsymphony.org/pso_home/press-room/press-releases/2019-2020/music-director-manfred-honeck-and-the-pso-release-a-new-recording-pairing-tchaikovsky-and-leshnoff)

On this 2020 release by Reference Recordings as part of their Pittsburgh Live! series, the majestic Symphony No. 4 in F Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with its famous opening clarion call that immediately commands listener attention, is paired with a lesser-known, but no less stirring, work by the American-born Jonathan Leshnoff. 

Pairings of this sort (a warhorse coupled with something new) are, of course, familiar within live musical performance practice, but here we are in a world wherein there is no current ability to mass gather and experience powerful symphonic music (perhaps one of the least socially distant musical forms). So, the recording medium will have to suffice. Good thing then that this album captures the dependably great Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the musical direction of Manfred Honeck, in fine form. The performance brings musical urgency and vitality to two important works capable of cleansing the banality of everyday life from one’s musical palette, and affording listeners the kind of hopeful optimism that only great music can provide during a time when, without the engagement of socialized work, friends, nightlife or human interaction, it is perhaps most needed. In this way, both works (Symphony No. 4 and Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon), the skillful way in which their performances were undertaken and the clear recording capture, are good for the soul. 

This indeed is life-affirming music during a difficult time, and it is nice to be reminded of the heights of human creativity and expression. Recommended!

06 Mahler 7Mahler – Symphony No.7
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
Bis BIS SACD-2386 (minnesotaorchestra.org/about/recordings)

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony might be considered the antidote to the intense pessimism of his Sixth, so-called “Tragic,” Symphony. Portions of this symphony (movements two and four) were in fact conceived concurrently with the Sixth, and there is an architectural similarity between the opening movements of the two works. 

The unjustly neglected Seventh is Mahler’s most “modern” symphony, an outlier whose progressive tonality and free-associative structure foreshadow the dissolution of the Romantic era. Darkness pervades the heart of this work, culminating in the frightening central Scherzo, yet it ends in brilliant sunshine. Beneath the surface of the frantic marches, haunted waltzes, militant fanfares and moments of deep tenderness lies a subliminal ambiguity that only fully reveals itself on deeper reflection. This is especially true in the mock-triumphalism of the finale of the work, which imposes an interpretive challenge far greater than that of any of the previous or indeed subsequent symphonies. In the words of the pre-eminent Mahler biographer Henri-Louis de la Grange, “To fathom the meaning of this enigmatic Rondo, we need, perhaps, to refer to more recent music in which quotations, borrowings and allusions to the past constitute the principal aim.” 

It takes a light and nimble hand to guide us through these thickets. Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota musicians rise to the challenge in this brilliantly recorded performance which ranks amongst the finest interpretations known to me of this oracular masterpiece. Highly recommended.

07 de FallaManuel de Falla – El Sombrero de tres picos; El amor brujo
Marina Heredia; Carmen Romeu; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi HMM902271 (harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2538)

This exciting new issue from Harmonia Mundi presents de Falla’s two best stage works back to back on a single CD conducted by the young, energetic, brilliant Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado who is very much in demand these days. Both of these scores pulsate with fiery flamenco rhythms and melodies, so Heras-Casado is in his element and enjoying himself thoroughly.

El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) is the more elaborate of the two. It is a comedy ballet/pantomime, a morality tale with the message “love belongs to the young and old fogeys should not chase young women.” The old fogey in this case is the village magistrate (El Corregidor) with a three-cornered hat who is after the Miller’s pretty young wife. She flirts with him for a while, but in trying to catch her he keeps stumbling and falling on his face to the ridicule of the village folk. Simple enough story, but full of delightful dances one after another, each different and each assigned to a different soloist – the Fandango (Miller’s wife), the Minuet (Corregidor), the Farruca (Miller) or the gentle rollicking Seguidilla for the neighbours celebrating St. John’s night, the night of love. At the end is a real apotheosis where it all comes together in the Final Dance, the Jota, with everyone dancing and all is forgiven.

As a contrast El amor brujo (Love the Magician) is much more serious although also a ballet. It tells of a young woman trying to exorcise the ghost of her unfaithful husband and be ready for a new love. It’s a dark score, full of mystery and black magic with dances like the Dance of Terror or the famous Ritual Fire Dance, but the story has a happy ending in a major key (Dance of the Game of Love) and all the bells are ringing. Excellent sound, great entertainment.

08 Exiles in ParadiseExiles in Paradise – Émigré Composers in Hollywood
Brinton Averil Smith; Evelyn Chen
Naxos 8.579055 (naxosdirect.com/items/exiles-in-paradise-emigre-composers-in-hollywood-530833)

By the early 20th century, Los Angeles had become the centre of the nascent film industry, although at the time, the city was little more than orange groves punctuated with the Hollywood Dream Factory that would pull the world out of the Great Depression and through WW ll. With the evil rise of Eastern European anti-Semitism, numbers of brilliant, classical musical artists began flocking to La La Land with the idea of bringing their skills to the movies that were being churned out on a daily basis. These brave musicians planted their roots into the thin, sandy soil and began the painstaking process of bringing artistic culture to the Wild West. 

With this exquisite release, magnificent pianist Evelyn Chen and equally magnificent cellist Brinton Averil Smith have created a project that celebrates these wonderful artists – many of whom directly contributed to the film industry. Included on the recording are interpretations of works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman and George Gershwin (born Jacob Gershowitz).

Stravinsky’s hauntingly beautiful Berceuse (from The Firebird) is presented here by Chen and Smith with a deep, emotional undercurrent that informs their sumptuous performances, perfectly enhanced by their contemporary sensibilities. One of the most thrilling tracks is Night Owls – Fantastic Variations by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who, after fleeing Mussolini’s Italy, scored over 200 films for MGM and taught a string of future film composers such as André Previn, Henry Mancini and John Williams. One can almost feel the kinesthetic, evocative, night-time Florence that the composer has created. Familiar to the listener will be Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie (drawn from Bizet’s opera) as well as Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So from his controversial, 1935 “Folk Opera” Porgy and Bess.

09 LA 100LA Phil 100
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel; Zubin Mehta; Esa-Pekka Salonen
Cmajor (naxosdirect.com/items/la-phil-100-the-los-angeles-philharmonic-centennial-birthday-gala-534124) 

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1919 by the millionaire and amateur musician William Andrews Clark Jr. who had the ambition and the funds to create best orchestra in the United States. One can only imagine the general excitement of the population at that time. Their first principal conductor was British-born Walter Henry Rothwell. Rothwell, a member of the musical elite, had connections, having been a member of the Vienna State Opera and had served as assistant to Gustav Mahler. Following Rothwell’s death in 1927 he was succeeded by these eminent conductors: Georg Schnéevoigt 1927-29; Artur Rodzinski 1929-33; Otto Klemperer 1933-39; Alfred Wallenstein 1943-56; Eduard van Beinum 1956-59; Zubin Mehta 1962-78; Carlo Maria Giulini 1978-84; André Previn 1985-89; Essa-Pekka Salonen,1992-2009 and thence Gustavo Dudamel, who is the current music and artistic director. Mehta is the conductor emeritus and Salonen is the conductor laureate.

There are two DVDs. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Centennial Birthday Gala Concert was recorded live in the unique Walt Disney Concert Hall in October 2019. Zubin Mehta conducted the Prelude to Die Meistersinger and Ravel’s La Valse. Essa Pekka-Salonen conducted Lutoslawski’s Symphony No.4, and Dudamel offered a thrilling suite from The Firebird. Finally, a commissioned work by Daniel Bjarnason titled From Space I saw the Earth. For this atmospheric, mysterious, “outer-space” work the orchestra was divided into three, each with its own conductor, namely Dudamel, Salonen and Mehta. 

The second disc is an informative documentary, with lots of interesting interviews and commentaries about the founding and the growth of the orchestra. The New York Times in 2017, just before the 100th Anniversary, headlined that “Los Angeles Has America’s Most Important Orchestra. Period.” This unique and most interesting package is testament to that.

01 Bev JohnstonThe Spirit and the Dust
Beverley Johnston; Mark Djokic; Amici Ensemble
Centrediscs CMCCD 27920 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-27920) 

Dubbed, “a champion of new, genre-busting works” (DRUM! Magazine), Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston is a rara avis in this country: a percussion soloist with an international career. Over four decades Johnston has built an enviable reputation for her musically intelligent performances, her deft classical transcriptions sharing the stage with contemporary compositions and dramatic presentations. Her career highlights and honours have been too many to list here. 

In 1986 Johnston released her first solo album Impact (Centrediscs, JUNO Award nominee), followed by seven more, as well having appeared on numerous other recordings. Her newest, The Spirit and the Dust, features her signature instruments, marimba and vibraphone. She is joined by violin virtuoso Mark Djokic and the illustrious Amici Chamber Ensemble in six works by four prominent Canadian composers, Christos Hatzis, Richard Mascall, Norbert Palej and Dinuk Wijeratne.

The Spirit and the Dust for solo marimba by Wijeratne is a dual musical meditation, skillfully reflecting on themes of life and death inspired by world literature, as well as on the richly varied tonal palette of the marimba itself. Johnston reveals her vulnerable side in Palej’s dramatic yet intimate ser con Él (be with Him). She whispers and sings words of yearning for someone unnamed while simultaneously playing vibraphone. Two fragmentary Chilean texts are separated by five centuries, one by an anonymous Inca poet, the other by Gabriela Mistral. 

While the absence these poets suggest may only be an illusion, the musical and emotional landscapes Johnston evokes on this album feel only too real.

02 PEP CD Vol 3PEP (Piano and Erhu Project)
Volume 3
Redshift Records (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk474/) 

The duo of erhu virtuosa Nicole Ge Li and contemporary music specialist, pianist Corey Hamm, known as PEP (Piano and Erhu Project), issued its first CD release in 2015, the second following soon on its heels. I reviewed both for The WholeNote, commenting that PEP’s core repertoire exemplifies a “fluid interplay between these two instruments, each an icon of its respective culture. Rather than an intercultural vanity project, their collective music-making focuses on polished, musically engaged readings of recently commissioned scores.”

PEP’s Volume 3 extends that project to nine richly varied compositions. The carefully curated collection includes international composers working in many of today’s classical music streams. In addition to two Canadian works by Lucas Oickle and Stephen Chatman, new compositions by Michael Finnissy (UK), Gao Ping (China), plus existing works by Sergei Prokofiev (Russia/USSR), his grandson Gabriel Prokofiev (UK), Somei Satoh (Japan) and Marc Mellits (USA) are on this rich smorgasbord.

The album gets off to a rollicking start with the percussive first movement of Chinese-born composer Gao Ping’s Hu Yan (2017). The work’s six sections are each characterized by contrasting techniques and moods. Pizzicato passages in both piano and erhu in the third movement are certainly arresting, as are the eerie finale’s final moments: bass piano clusters thud while the erhu holds a still, high vibrato-less tone. 

The album concludes with an arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scherzo from his Flute Sonata (1943), later arranged for violin and piano by the composer. Hamm energetically nails down the two-fisted piano accompaniment while Li handles her difficult erhu part with panache. She makes it sounds like the 77-year old work was written for her. It’s an espresso nightcap to PEP’s exhilarating program.

Listen to 'PEP (Piano and Erhu Project)' Now in the Listening Room

03 chiaroscuroJordan Nobles – Chiaroscuro
Various Artists
Redshift Records TK477 (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk477/) 

Gentle pulse, deep echo, and the alluring heat of mirage; this is the mysterious sonic imagery evoked throughout the enchanting music of Chiaroscuroa new release by Canadian composer Jordan Nobles. Chiaroscuro is a term used in visual art referring to the careful use of light and dark to create the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface. Nobles’ brilliant use of instrumental colour does exactly that: the artifice of tone painting creating multi-aural brush strokes of vast hyper-chroma. 

Although the music seems to provide a static environment on the surface, a masterful and beautiful complexity unfolds beneath. It is a space propelled forward by shimmering strings, luminous harp flourishes, fluttering winds and vocal wisps – messages from another world that travel by wind to ear. Nobles treats the large instrumental forces with such care that one seems to forget that there are separate voices: the resultant amalgam presented as unified iridescence. The two pieces on the disc offer oceans of spiritual radiances for the listener – make the time and dive in. 

04 EinaudiLudovico Einaudi – Chamber Music
Cameron Crozman; Quatuor Molinari; Pentaèdre
ATMA ACD2 2805 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1650)

Considered by many to be the world’s most popular classical composer, Italian Ludovico Einaudi’s vast collection of compositions has appeared in films, television series and on countless albums recorded by soloists, ensembles and the composer himself. Musique de chambre features four of Einaudi’s extended works, written for both soloists and chamber ensemble, performed by prominent Quebec musicians.

Each of the pieces on this album demonstrates Einaudi’s ability to create an atmospheric soundscape using harmony and rhythm, incorporating minimalist elements to great effect. This is not classical music in the style of Mozart and Beethoven: rather than being foundational material, melodic lines are the exception to the rule; throbbing, pulsing rhythms and large-scale harmonic shifts bring Philip Glass and Michael Nyman to mind, but with the striking contrasts of dynamic and character that are indicative of Einaudi’s unique compositional voice. 

Corale, for example, juxtaposes vital and exuberant string passages with soft and subdued statements, the “choral” sung amidst the outbursts. Zoom (aptly titled, given our current reliance on the eponymous technology) combines a lengthy, slow opening with a speedy and chaotic conclusion – what begins as a seemingly ironic subversion of the title erupts into a virtuosic reflection of what it means to “zoom.” 

Canto and Ai margini dell’aria are, in both title and sound, reflective of vocal music, featuring prominent lines, sometimes many at once, over discordant accompaniment. For those who appreciate Einaudi’s style and want to look beyond the keyboard works, Musique de chambre is a fine place to start.

05 John Oswald coverCLASSICS from the Rascali Klepitoire (teaser) EP
John Oswald
fony (pfony.bandcamp.com)

This Toronto composer/saxophonist/improviser/electronics/artistic genius John Oswald release is an exciting cross section of masterfully created old and new projects illuminating Oswald’s unique talents in electronic and live sound creation, something this reviewer can attest from decades playing free improvised music with him in various settings. 

Oswald recently revised an earlier dance piano/ensemble soundtrack to disklavier for from exquisite lune. Linda Caitlin Smith’s score is one that Oswald subcontracted for his suite based on Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and here her slow reflective piece with wide spaces is breathtaking to the final high-pitched piano sounds. The Oswald and James Rolfe co-composition bird, based on Leonard Cohen, is fascinating with the opening solo female voice warbling, high notes, pace change, spoken words and final almost folk oompah groove backdrop. 

Plunderphonics galore in a sum of distractions* (concerto for conductor and orchestra), as the conductor/soloist is wired for sound, and fingertip triggers set off musical quotes against flute melody, intermittent orchestral crashes and superimposed familiar lines for new listening experiences. sounds of sigh… opens with a Simon and Garfunkel Sounds of Silence -sounding riff as overlapping symphonic held notes, groove patterns, intense sustained horn and atonal effects abound. 

Also included are lontanofaune, and ariature & panorama. But the biggest thrill is the “silly bonus track” 5th. Beethoven’s classic symphony now contains such treats as electronically produced sounds, squeaks, instrumental effects, grunts, all in classic Oswald plunderphonics bravado.

Oswald has also been releasing reissues on Bandcamp. Highlights include Grayfolded “radio edit” (1994), his infamous groundbreaking reworking of music played by the Grateful Dead. Discosphere (1991) is a cross section of Oswald’s “soundtracks for dance.” Kissing Jesus in the Dark is a 1970s “found sound” release by Pause Pirate – Oswald, Marvin Green and Miguel Frasconi.

Timeless fun music by a great Canadian musician!

06 New England TriosNew England Trios
Joel Pitchon; Marie-Volcy Pelletier; Yu-Mei Wei
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9530 (bridgerecords.com/products/9530) 

With the release of this exquisitely produced, recorded and performed disc, the skilled trio of John Pitchon (violin), Marie-Volcy Pelletier (cello) and Yu-Mei Wei (piano) have explored the New England connection between iconic American composers Ronald Perera, Walter Piston and Leonard Bernstein. All three of these seminal, 20th-century artists found common ground in their mutual New England upbringings and their education at Harvard University in Boston. Written at the age of 19, Bernstein’s 1937 trio is a very early work by the genius who would ultimately blur the lines between classical, jazz and ethnomusics, which led to the very definition of contemporary American musical theatre. Interestingly, recordings of the other three trios (the two by Piston from 1935 and 1966, and the Perera from 2002) have not been available in recent years, making the disc an especially important addition to the catalogue. 

Highlights of the ambitious CD are Piston’s Allegro from Piano Trio No.1, a vivacious, intense and passionate interpretation, punctuated by strong, sinuous, unison lines and deep, throbbing cello work from Pelletier, and Bernstein’s aforementioned Adagio non Troppo – piu mosso – Allegro Vivace, which is almost unbearably romantic, and yet rife with dark references to all-consuming passions, creative obsession and an all-too-brief creative euphoria. How prophetic those unguarded motifs are when viewed in context with Bernstein’s life and work. 

In Perera’s Incisivo, Pitchon shines with appropriate incisor-like attack and intonation, and all three trio members move through this piece as an unstoppable single-celled organism. Of special mention is Piston’s Allegro con Brio, which is a technical thrill ride, with pianist Wei dynamically clearing the path through the mysterious pizzicato forest. On this composition, Piston, being the senior of this composing triumvirate, displays his joy of experimentation that would echo generations into the future.

07 Heard in HavanaHeard in Havana
Third Sound
Innova Recordings 990 (innova.mu/albums/third-sound/heard-havana)

In 2015, the American Composers Forum sent a delegation of musicians and composers to Cuba. Their mission: to present a program of contemporary classical American music at the Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Habana. It was the first such concert to take place in Cuba since the Cuban Revolution. 

The ensemble chosen to perform was the newly formed New York City-based quintet Third Sound, comprising some of NYC’s top chamber musicians. In preparation, ACF and Third Sound held a national call for scores for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Heard in Havana showcases the ten works chosen, the product of a diverse group of composers from across the USA reflecting the variety of American classical composition today.

I admire much of the music of the truly international Kati Agócs. Though born in Windsor, Ontario and a JUNO Award winner, she retains three citizenships, American, Canadian and Hungarian (European Union). Her work embraces both her North American and Hungarian parental and musical lineages. Agócs’ elegant and elegiac 2007 Immutable Dreams II: Microconcerto [in memoriam György Ligeti] on this album is no exception. Writes the composer, it is a “miniature piano concerto… a tribute to my Hungarian roots and to György Ligeti’s influence.” I also hear multiple echoes of the music of another great 20th-century Hungarian: Béla Bartók. Agócs’ Microconcerto concludes with a haunting, musically enigmatic and gentle metacrusis. 

Summing up the album, there aren’t many common threads among the ten pieces chosen. But perhaps that’s the point. An abundant variety of artistic expression is a core value I can also get behind.

08 Chinary UngChinary Ung Vol.4 – Space Between Heaven and Earth
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9533A/B (bridgerecords.com/products/9533)

American-Cambodian composer Chinary Ung began his career writing music highly inspired by 20th-century modernist techniques in what was typical in the post-Second Viennese School climate. After a ten-year hiatus from composing to help with the Cambodian genocide and resultant refugee crises, Ung re-emerged to write in a new and highly personal compositional voice exploring cross-cultural practices. This is doubtless a by-product of Ung’s efforts to preserve Khmer traditional music during the Cambodian crises. In an effort to create a substantial document of Ung’s mature style, Bridge records has committed to a series of recordings of the composer’s mature works. 

In Volume 4 we receive a two-disc collection of five vastly original and accomplished chamber works. Ung has created a world of highly ritualistic gestures and mysterious auras. In the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer’s own terms, his mature style may be summarized as “futuristic folk music” – a term that aptly describes Ung’s use of quotation and evocation in a truly contemporary landscape. Throughout each piece, we as listeners are surrounded with entwined modal intricacies, suggestive drones, and shimmering percussive magic – all creating the elixir of undiscovered, and yet familiar, cultural scenery. This, together with world-class performances from the musicians, transports the listener to a place where time seems lost, and instead, sound pervades a sense of instance.

09 PBO Caroline Shaw Front CoverPBO & Caroline Shaw
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale; Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia PBP-12 (philharmonia.org/product/shawcd)

Listen to this: an unexpected, lush, open-hearted triumph of a record featuring an oratorio and song cycle, written for period instruments by the singular, esteemed, Caroline Shaw (USA, b.1982). Recently, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra established a “New Music for Old Instruments” initiative, aimed at creating fresh works expressly for period instruments. The fruits are already being born, as radiant, alluring music by Shaw proves on this disc, featuring extraordinary artistic talents such as Anne Sofie von Otter.

Opening with a song trilogy, Is a Rose, this album immediately transports the listener to a vibrant, fantastical soundworld fashioned from bygone Baroque molecules, now re-energized anew. The terrific musicianship of the PBO and its longtime director, Nicholas McGegan is on full display here. Glorious sonorities complement von Otter’s soaring vocal lines. (This will be McGegan’s final recording with the orchestra.) 

And it just gets better: The Listeners, a full-scale oratorio by Shaw, is up next, brimming over with cosmic warmth and light. The libretto is derived from five centuries of English poetry, supplemented with recorded excerpts from Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, as launched into space in 1977. 

Oratorio is the ideal vehicle for Shaw’s creativity and an idiom that seems to be gaining newfound popularity these days amongst other composers. The genre’s inherent humanity is perhaps what remains attractive and we need it today more than ever, as our 21st-century world faces novel challenges, now in its third, disquieting decade.

10 PhilipGlass MusicinEightPartsPhilip Glass – Music in Eight Parts
Philip Glass Ensemble
Orange Mountain Music (orangemountainmusic.com) 

There is a type of sensual, corporeal and self-encompassing sensation that can occur with grand-gesture music – Eduard Hanslick’s “warm bath” of the symphony, for example. This visceral feeling is equally true here, as listeners are invited to slip in and immerse ourselves in this “new” Philip Glass work, which is actually a 1970 score that went missing, and accordingly, unrecorded, until surfacing at Christie’s Auction House in late 2017. 

Like much of Glass’ work, repetition, in this case dynamically intensifying and iteratively building over eight parts, takes on a hypnotic effect, lulling attuned listeners to an otherworldly place of self-reflection and meditation. It is precisely this sort of self-reflexivity that gloms onto Glass’ sometime identification as a post-modern composer, as the repetition brings with it a type of sameness that allows the mind to wander and find its own truths, experience and beauty within the music. In this way, Music in Eight Parts, reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s (another artist who bristled with the postmodern label) unfinished, and posthumously released, The Pale King, where the banal minutiae of the everyday vocational routine of Peoria-based IRS collectors during the 1980s is presented with such intricate detail that readers are potentially swept away to a higher level of mindfulness and consciousness. 

While Music in Eight Parts may be a composition from the Nixon era, this recording (remote assembling?) is truly of the 2020 pandemic age, with all parts recorded separately by Philip Glass Ensemble members, and then produced, mixed and mastered by Michael Riesman, without togetherness, in-person interaction or “performance,” at least not in the way that many have traditionally understood that term. However, despite the appropriate and necessary distanced and clinical construction of how the recording came together, the result is warm, inviting and well worth adding to your music collection.

11 William SusmanWilliam Susman – Scatter My Ashes
Octet Ensemble
belarca belarca-004 (belarca.com) 

Let us begin with props where they are deserved. OCTET, the ensemble dedicated to performing William Susman’s music, and possibly others’ as well, is a good bunch of players. Their work on this just-released collection is fine and tight, although there occur a few instances of pretty rough intonation, notably toward the end of Triumph, the third movement of Camille. Among the instrumentalists, of whom the composer is one, a vocalist adds the human voice to the collective timbre. Mellissa Hughes more than meets the requirements; the beauty of her tone draws my ear to her and everything sounds like a song. There are in fact two song cycles on the disc: Scatter My Ashes and Moving to an Empty Space. Hughes delivers the text of Sue Susman, the composer’s sister, with remarkable clarity, and recording engineer John Kilgore does well to balance voice with ensemble. 

Susman’s a kid in the candy store when it comes to rhythmic groupings, and it’s fun to follow along as he keeps dipping into one jar after another of irregular divisions of regular bars. The music is consistently upbeat, chipper, heartening. Consistency is not entirely a virtue, however, and one of the record’s faults is with the tonal palette of the music. He favours a kind of colouristic minimalism, tending toward bright polytonal alternating sound plateaus. Usually two per number. Often sounding very like the ones used in other numbers. Which begins to wear. On the ear. Like a series of incomplete sentences. Used for critical effect. 

The third piece, Susman’s Piano Concerto breaks the mould at least in terms of variety of texture and tonality. Although he begins the piece with the same trope as he uses in Triumph (a C-major scale building into a cluster), by placing the piano in the role of soloist, he gains more freedom to explore textural possibility. And the second-to-last song, Begging the Night for Change (aptly) manages to step away from the narrow range of keys/tonalities favoured, and is to my mind the most effective piece on the disc.

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